While Waiting to Rebuild Them, Should the Council Refurbish Flat Complexes?

Patrick Fagan is relieved to be moving out of his home in the local-authority apartments on Dorset Street.

Many of the neighbouring flats have been boarded up for years, making it a disheartening environment to be living in – and a magnet for bored teenagers looking to start fires.

His home is scheduled for demolition, which, he thinks, made Dublin City Council workers reluctant to carry out the list of 15 maintenance jobs that he gave them.

“With so many units unoccupied, half the passive surveillance is gone,” says Mary Fitzpatrick, a former councillor and Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin Central in the last general election. She is standing in the living room of Fagan’s small, rundown local-authority apartment.

The council has for years been reducing the number of tenants in the complex, by not re-letting apartments when people leave, she says. Officials have offered everyone living in Fagan’s block transfers to other homes.

According to a recent update given by Dublin City Council management to the councillors on the Central Area Committee, the council plans to demolish the entire apartment complex on Dorset Street and rebuild it from scratch.

Area Housing Manager Sean Smith says he is hopeful about getting money approved from the Department of Housing, and that the works will proceed quickly.

Fitzpatrick agrees that the area needs to be fully regenerated. But as there is, as yet, no planning permission or finance in place for the rebuild, she estimates that this will take at least five years.

In the meantime, she wants to see the vacant units brought back into use. There is, after all, long, long list of people waiting for social housing, and an affordable-housing shortage, and a growing number of homeless families.

Given the current housing situation in the city, is there an argument for refurbishing and bringing back into use – even temporarily – some of the large local-authority apartment blocks that are scheduled for demolition?

The Problems

The list of problems that plague residents of some local-authority apartment complexes is long: damp, mould and sewerage issues; flooding, leaks, and poor security.

They are often seriously cramped as well. Some bathrooms have no space for a hand basin and a shower, so residents have to choose one or the other, says Fitzpatrick.

Some were built in the 1960s and “effectively they are not fit for purpose for the 21st century”, says Smith. One of the structural issues that seems to cause a lot of trouble is the stacked piping, says Sinn Féin Councillor Criona Ni Dhalaigh.

The council was criticised this week by the European Committee of Social Rights for the poor standard of living conditions in some of their apartments.

What Is the plan?

In 2014, Dublin City Council had 993 empty homes awaiting regeneration and refurbishment, and 1,355 local authority homes – approximately 5 percent of the total stock – were vacant in the city, according to a report by the National Audit and Oversight Commission

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that those figures are now out of date. “Since then significant progress has been made in returning vacant LA [local-authority] units back to productive use,” he said.

Plans for regeneration and refurbishment of local-authority apartments were outlined at a recent meeting of the council’s Central Area Committee.

Several apartment complexes in the inner city are earmarked for demolition and reconstruction: St Mary’s Mansions, Dominick Street Lower, Dorset Street, and St Mary’s Terrace.

Construction workers are already pulling down Croke Villas, and the Constitution Hill apartments are earmarked for a mix of refurbishment and reconstruction.

These projects won’t be done under a public-private partnership, says Smith. The council is applying to the Department of Housing to fund them, he says.

He has a timeline in mind for Dorset Street. “I believe we will get permission from the government to do that within the next four to six months and we will be starting demolition down there within 12 months,” he said.

Previous projects, including the upcoming regeneration of O’Devaney Gardens, have resulted in a net loss of public housing, which is unacceptable, says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithi  Doolan, who heads the council’s housing committee.

Doolan says he has guarantees from council management that any future regeneration projects will mean increased social and affordable housing being built on public land.

“I’m sick of standing over regeneration plans where we lost units,” says Doolan. “It’s like George Orwell’s 1984. They say, ‘Congratulations, we have added 40 units.'” But before, there might have been 70 homes.

A Serious Makeover

Fagan’s apartment is in need of serious refurbishment. There are problems with the pipes: if his neighbour above flushes the toilet, his bathroom starts to smell, he says.

The apartment is small. It lacks storage space and is unsuitable for a family home, as there isn’t room for a kitchen table.

There is no flooring in the hall. In the bathroom, the paint is peeling and the sink is coming away from the wall. There are problems with the heating too, he says. “The rooms are freezing,” he says. “It’s warmer outside.”

But Fagan believes if the heating was fixed the apartments could be renovated for “families starting out”. He points to St Joseph’s Mansions which was successfully refurbished and was done very well, he says.

Fagan has a teenage son and daughter who are sharing a bedroom, so he is delighted to be getting a transfer to a three-bedroom house.

But the reason for the transfer is not the overcrowding, but that his block is being “de-tenanted”, says Fitzpatrick.

Approximately a quarter of the wider complex is now vacant, she says. While, meantime, some local families have to double up with grandparents in the little apartments due to the housing crisis, she says.

She has been watching the council vacancy levels grow in the north inner city for years, she says. “It is not that they have become vacant in the last six months or a year,” she says.

She has been querying it since 2012, when she was a councillor and got the same answers then she does now, she says – it is part of a redevelopment.

Five years ago, they knocked down a senior citizens’ unit on the complex, directly outside Fagan’s window. Fitzpatrick points out the window to the empty space.

If the council wanted to re-build, they could start by building there, she says. They could move the tenants out into that block and get on with the demolition of the next one.

Fitzpatrick agrees that in the long term, the units should be demolished and re-built. “I’m in favour of the regeneration, but in the meantime they could be done up and given to families,” she says.

“There is no design, there is no planning application, there is no tender, and no planning permission,” she says. (So far, the council has appointed a design team.)

All of that will take years, she says.

Homes for the Homeless

Housing expert and architect Mel Reynolds says that getting funding approved to rebuild a complex will take at least three years.

But those apartments could be refurbished for around €40,000 to €50,000 each, and then used temporarily to house homeless families, he says.

The cost of keeping families in hotels for a year is €40 million which, by that calculation, is approximately what it would cost to do up all the vacant apartments, but they could be used for three years.

This would offer a significant savings to the state, and would be better for the homeless families too, says Reynolds.

“For €40 or €50 million, those 1,000 units could house almost all the homeless families and it could be done in six months,” says Reynolds.

Fitzpatrick wonders why the Department of Housing was willing to invest around €70 million in privately owned buildings to create homeless hostels or hubs for families, rather than investing in property that the state owns.

“They are spending money, uneconomically and unproductively by putting it into temporary accommodation that the state doesn’t own,” says Fitzpatrick. “Why don’t they use some of the money on their own real estate by making it habitable?”

As Reynolds sees it, fixing up vacant stock is the best option to acquire a significant number of homes fast, as it doesn’t require planning permission.

Across the water, a local authority in London refurbished 25,000 homes with the tenants in them, says Reynolds. “All you have to do is give it a builder and they will refurbish it for €50,000,” he says.

But Smith, the council housing manager, disagrees. “The stuff that needs to be done to them isn’t a €50,000 job in a refurb,” he says.

Way Too Slow

Sinn Féin Councillor Criona Ní Dhálaigh says she can see both sides of this debate. She is hugely frustrated with the slow progress on regeneration projects.

“When I started in the council 11 years ago we were at design stage for the regeneration of Teresa’s Gardens”, she says, “and we still haven’t turned a sod there”.

There should be no vacancy during the housing crisis, she says. “Everything should be done on the rapid process.”

But sometimes money gets pumped into refurbishments and even after all the works have been completed the problems such as flooding and dampness return, she says. “In some cases it doesn’t matter what you do. It is structural and historical. It is the design.”

The other problem is if you move families in, how do you get them back out again for the regeneration to take place? she says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the government refurbishes where it can and only knocks down and rebuilds apartments when it is better value to do so.

“Older buildings may have significant issues, including space standards, thermal performance, and [a lack of] disabled access,” said the spokesperson.

So even after costly refurbishment, it can be hard to bring them up to standard, he said. He didn’t directly address whether the units should be refurbished in the interim period.

Rebuilding offers an opportunity to increase the number of units on a site too, said the spokesperson.

Smith of Dublin City Council says he hopes demolition works will begin on the apartments on Dorset Street in the next 12 months.

Demolishing and rebuilding them will be expensive though. It is costing €26 million to rebuild 54 new homes in St Teresa’s Gardens, says Ní Dhálaigh. 

Doolan says it takes ages to claw money away from the central government to carry out structural works, and the council has to leave units empty while it waits.

“We need money from central government fast-tracked to let us do this,” he says. In the meantime, he is not comfortable allocating homes that are not of acceptable standards.

“I’ve lived in the flats, lived without central heating, without a hand basin, appalling,” he says. “The middle-class families, the people who control the Department [of Housing] wouldn’t live in those conditions.”

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a freelance journalist. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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